“Josephine Baker,” by various

October 15, 2018

“Josephine Baker” is a graphic novel written by José-Louis Bocquet, illustrated by Catel Muller, and translated into English by Edward Gauvin. It’s an ambitious tome, large enough to prop open a door, and covers her life from birth to death. Baker lead a very full and exciting life, however, which makes capturing it all in one book difficult. “Josephine Baker” works best as an introduction to her life, an opening of the door for other works that cover specific aspects of her life like her activism or spy efforts, for instance. Unfortunately it’s just a bit too much to cram into one book, leaving it feeling rushed and superficial.

The art, in black and white, is a bit uneven. Baker and most figures are cartoonish, rendered in brushwork that’s beautiful but blunt. Other figures are drawn in a way that’s recognizable. We can see who they are immediately. One would think that Baker, the main subject of the book, would have similar treatment but no: her depiction remains cartoonish and often interchangeable with other female characters. Some of the lines of motion when people are dancing are lovely and graceful, but other times the dancers look like monkeys… which, when the subject matter is Black people, can be an issue. The illustrations of buildings are beautiful, like architectural renderings, and a stark contrast to the very fluid- and usually thick- lines used to depict humans.

As I mentioned, the book skims along the surface of Baker’s life without lingering too long on any detail. It feels less like a biography and more like a chronological cataloging of events: her marriages, her affairs, her venues, her many adopted children (12), etc. It doesn’t really dip into any one thing and explore it, so the book winds up feeling a bit empty. It would be much more effective if it had picked a single topic and explored it fully. For instance, her adoption of twelve children; her civil rights activism; her spying for the Allies against the Axis; HER BISEXUALITY. Yes, this is a book that mentions her many many affairs with men but not with women, that in fact mentions in one line that she has relationships with women and that’s it. And even that isn’t given any importance. There’s also a section in the back of short biographies of the people in her life and men vastly outnumber women there, too.

The book succeeds in one very important way: it left me more curious about Baker’s life and interested enough to seek out other books about her. However as a stand-alone book it doesn’t soar.

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